viernes, 12 de febrero de 2010

Orlando: A Biography


Orlando: A Biography (Harcourt, 2006)
by Virginia Woolf
England, 1928

I'm sure that people who liked Orlando will have all sorts of interesting things to say about its playfulness, its liberating send-up of gender roles, and the way Woolf thumbed her nose at genre conventions in creating a novel that pairs the literature of the fantastic with feminist pseudobiography in such a creative way.  For my part, I haven't taken such a visceral disliking to a book since the second installment of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy a few months back.  How could a tale about a 16th-century character who ages over three hundred years and undergoes a gender change in the course of the story be such a complete bore?  While I'm not entirely sure, I think a huge part of it for me has to do with Woolf's smug contempt for the non-white/non-aristocratic "others" in her fictional fantasy land.  If you can imagine a gentle Calvino fable as rewritten by unsavory pro-Empire types like Margaret Thatcher or Bush Republicans, you'll be well on your way to understanding why all the freewheeling references to "blackamoors," barbarous gypsies, and "niggers" in Orlando sometimes make it tough to enjoy some of the more exotic elements in its otherwise frothy, fabulistic mix.  Lest any readers of this post rightly point out that it's not really fair to judge Woolf's apparent racism by the standards of a later generation, I should note that I also didn't connect with her stylistic elements this time out either.  For all the heady fast-forwarding in time that takes place in the narrative (for me, practically the novel's only saving grace), I felt virtually bored into submission by the overkill I'm-so-clever-watch-me-make-fun-of-the-biographer's-role asides from the narrator, the silly stories about dropping toads down potential suitors' shirts, and the "whimsical" use of an invented language for entertainment purposes ("Rattigan Glumphoboo," described as a substitute for "a very complicated spiritual state" on pages 208-209, might have been the low point EVER for humor lost in translation).  With any luck, Woolf will be depressed and/or cynical again when I get around to reading The Waves in a couple of weeks since this "fun" side of hers definitely rubbed me the wrong way.  A total disappointment.  (http://www.harcourtbooks.com/)

Woolf

Thanks to Frances for hosting the Orlando: A Biography round of Woolf in Winter.  See you on or around the 26th for a discussion of Woolf's The Waves being organized by Claire of kiss a cloud.  In the meantime, I await your petulant comments and/or e-mails.

18 comentarios:

  1. Who's a cranky boy? I completely understand not liking a book friends picked out. I think you mentioned Kristin Lavransdatter? Two weeks from now. The Waves. Better for Richard.

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  2. Well, at least you were only wishing that Woolf be "depressed and/or cynical again" for your next reading; as I recall, quite a few participants in the Kristin Lav readalong were rather anxious for her to die! (yes, I'm conflating author and character, but I think it is justified in the case of Kristin Lav!)

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  3. Aw, Richard, I didn't know you had such a strong negative reaction though. A post comparable to your Kristin posts! I think all your reasons for not liking it are valid. I was thinking about why all those things never really bothered me; and realize I was expecting it, based on the kind of family Vita/Orlando was from, and based on (as you say) the time/age. Now I'm bothered that I wasn't bothered. What does it say about me? Maybe the effect of the Spaniards' colonization of our people never left me; and I will probably always be accepting or indifferent towards prejudiced treatment towards me and mine. Unconsciously. Wow, thanks for making me at least look at myself. I did think, while reading, how snobbish Woolf was, but I was having so much fun with the story that I soon forgot about it. Anyway, good luck to us with The Waves. Hopefully the serious Woolf puts you in a better mood. :)

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  4. I am currently really struggling to forgive a different author for tremendous sexism despite otherwise engaging prose, Richard, so I can't fault you too much, especially if you didn't connect with the overall style of the novel. The race stuff bothers me more every time I read Orlando, even though for me the balance is still overwhelmingly postive. I think Woolf was trying to be "Shakespearean," but it doesn't really come off.

    Never fear, though, The Waves is much more serious, lyrical, and less (")humorous("). I am actually quite curious what people will think of it. Suffice to say, if folks felt Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse had no plot...

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  5. Oooh dear this makes me kinda glad I went off on a rogue Woolf tangent of my own rather than read this, yet it also makes me wish I had read it a bit too. Odd, but true. Glad you didnt hold back and glad there are some other people who have had bumps with Woolf.

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  6. *Frances: "Who's a cranky boy?" = genius! Laughed my ass off at that one, in fact. Glad to hear The Waves should be "better for Richard," too. Cheers!

    *Jill: Great point and another comment that had me rolling with laughter! You and Frances certainly made reading Orlando almost worthwhile with these two cracks, and it's always good to be reminded of the passion with which some people hated on either Undset or K Lav the character. Too funny!

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  7. Oh, this was refreshing. Before logging on this morning I was all in a fret about what to say to people (as if it were up to me) who felt they had to apologize for not liking one or another of Woolf's novels. You do what I'd like to be able to do better, saying clearly what it was you didn't like. Thanks!

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  8. Wow, comparing this to Kristin Lav...! That's intense. It's kind of funny that Kristin is going to be our go-to girl for awhile as a standard for really terrible characters/stories/writing. It's almost giving her too much credit (or maybe attention...!)

    I can't say that I disliked the book as much as you, but Orlando definitely didn't resonate with me in the same way as the other books. There was a lot that I found annoying rather than funny, even though I tend to like dry British wit. I got hints of 'cleverer than thou' but that didn't surprise me given that Woolf was supposed to have been fairly snobby in real life. I picked up on the racial stuff, and while I think Emily is onto something with her point about Woolf trying to be Shakespearean, I was disturbed from the opening scene where the boy Orlando is bashing at the skull of the conquered Moor...!

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  9. *Claire: I've enjoyed works that were much more offensive in one way or another, so I'm not really sure why the race stuff bothered me so much here. It didn't help, of course, that the story was so otherwise uninteresting to me. And reading 3-4 works by the same author in such a short time does tend to magnify one's likes and dislikes of the writer. So I don't think you should feel bothered about not being bothered necessarily--at least, that wasn't the intent of my post! Anyway, thanks, as always, for the visit, my friend!

    *Emily: I think Woolf was prob. trying to be "Shakespearean" and/or true to the 16th/17th century western literary spirit as well, but her "Britishness" that you mentioned in your own post still grates on me given how often she celebrates her own culture at the expense of others'. Also don't care for her patronizing attitude towards the working class and poor in her own country, but these are minuses that could be offset by the quality of her writing. Just not this time, for me. Am looking forward to what I understand will be a challenging text in The Waves, but I'd probably be more excited about it if we had more space in between each read. The book every two weeks thing, as I alluded to Claire above, can be a little daunting.

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  10. Always enjoy reading your reviews, Richard. Up until now I hadn't read many negative ones--I'll have to search your archives for this Lavransdatter one--but I appreciated your pointing out some of the reasons (racism/snobbery) that may have made this a terrible read for many, including yourself.

    After reading your review, I felt a bit guilty or even ashamed at basically having glossed over those parts in the reading in order to enjoy the language. I suppose I also just attributed it to Woolf's upbringing.

    Overall, for me it was a good-to-great experience. Looking forward to The Waves.

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  11. LOL! I would have to join your cranky self. Maybe for different reasons, but this one was a struggle and really left me scratching my head. I'll be relieved to, as you say, get back to depressed Virginia.

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  12. *Simon: I have so few regular readers that it would make little or no sense for me to ever hold back in a review! Judging by our combined results, though, I wish I had taken a rogue approach to Woolf with this one as you did. Smart move that!

    *Julia: I'm sure you know this already yourself, of course, but one of the nice things about writing about books is that you're constantly forced to consider what you liked and disliked about a work if you ever hope to "justify" your reaction to others. So thanks for the kind words, but they are entirely undeserved!

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  13. I quote Claire: now I'm bothered that I wasn't bothered. My admiration for the writer made me blind to her faults. I quite enjoyed "Orlando": I found it funny, unusual and witty. I was so involved in the story and in the change of gender that everything else was unimportant to me. I've never read a novel as original as "Orlando". Also, when I read authors distant in the past, I try to think about the effect that it had on readers when it fist came out... so I agree with the fact that it's not fair to judge her with modern standards, although I did that for Conrad in one of my posts! I've noticed that it's quite common among American bloggers. Mmmmmmmmmmh... Of course if you didn't like her style, nobody's forcing you to read her books again (apart from taking part in a Woolf reading group, ahahah!).

    I agree with Emily, by the way. Now that I think of it, maybe Woolf was trying to be Shakesperian. Excellent idea!

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  14. I love it when you hate books.

    I tried reading Woolf a couple times, and I just don't get her. Maybe I'll try again before I die, maybe not.

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  15. *Sarah: K-Lav (love Jill from Rhapsody in Books' disrespectful abbreviation!) will definitely be the go-to girl/book for a while, at least until another gold standard for crap turns up that we can all almost universally assail! Orlando obviously has more to offer than Undset's trilogy, but I felt the same way reading it (bored, angry, etc.), hence the (unfortunate) comparison. Whatever. :D

    *Lourdes: Thanks so much for the kind words! A bunch of the "regulars" here (inc. all of the Woolf in Winter co-hosts) and I read Sigrid Undset's 1920-22 Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy as part of a three-month long readalong late last year, and it became such a trying experience for most that it's now kind of funny to revisit our bonding through suffering. So you should be able to find three increasingly hostile posts about that novel from me and a few more from the others if that's what you're looking for! As far as feeling guilty about maybe having glossed over certain questionable things because you were so immersed in the inspiring parts of Woolf's prose, I wouldn't worry about it too much. I think we all make allowances for writers/artists we enjoy, and it's not like Woolf is around to defend her choices anyway. Anyway, glad you'll be continuing on with The Waves!

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  16. *Amy: Since misery loves company, rest assured that I'm looking forward to checking out your post regardless of your reasons for calling it a "struggle." In the meantime, thanks for the visit!

    *Stefania: It's been interesting to hear how many people were somewhat bothered by Woolf's prejudices after the fact but not so much during the reading of Orlando. Whether or not the Shakespearean thing really excuses Woolf, I guess that's what powerful writing will do for you! In my case, I would have stopped reading Orlando early on if not for reading it as part of a group. Not because of the race issues so much but because it was making me grumpy when I read it. Didn't connect with its sense of humor at all. Most people in the readalong really loved it, though, much like you.

    Isabella: "I love it when you hate books" is practically the greatest compliment I've ever gotten! Thanks for the laugh! And even though I very much enjoyed the two Woolf novels I read just before this one, I'm beginning to see how/why Woolf may not be for everyone. She can be quite a pill at times. Cheers!

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  17. While I'm not entirely sure, I think a huge part of it for me has to do with Woolf's smug contempt for the non-white/non-aristocratic "others" in her fictional fantasy land.

    You absolutely have a point. The opening passage, and the one later on when Orlando is living with the gypsies, made me really uncomfortable. I loved the book overall, and I got so carried away talking about the things I loved that I didn't mention any of this. I now wish I have, as it does no good to sweep these things under the rug, even considering historical differences.

    This is something that has always bothered me about Woolf's non-fiction as well. I love her for many reasons, one being her feminism, but her class politics are appalling. I know there are reasons for this, but she had a very limited view of certain power imbalances, and it saddens me that she was unable - or unwilling - to make the transition from gender-based oppression to race or class.

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  18. *Nymeth: The topic of Woolf's class politics was brought up by another blogger earlier in Woolf and Winter also (in a Mrs. Dalloway review, I think), and I think seeing that side of Woolf three times in six weeks may be starting to wear thin on me. I like how you frame the situation, though: being able to appreciate her feminism but being sad that she couldn't/wouldn't make the jump from gender to race or class. Sounds about right to me. Anyway, thanks for the visit and welcome to the blog--it was nice to have you drop by!

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